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It’s No Breeze for Mayfair

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Can a 31-year-old former teenage standard-bearer who got married on a golf course find peace, happiness and a victory in the Nissan Open, which he presumably can enjoy in sickness and in health?

Maybe. And that’s the job in front of Billy Mayfair in the Nissan Open at Valencia Country Club, where he threw caution and a few golf balls to the wind, shot a second-round par 71 Friday and kept his one-shot lead at six-under 136.

The margin could have been more, but Mayfair gave three shots back to the field when he staggered home with three bogeys on the last four holes. If that’s not enough to send you and your confidence to divorce court, it ought to be.

But Mayfair doesn’t feel that way, even if his lead over Tommy Armour III, Payne Stewart and Stephen Ames is about as skinny as a flagstick.

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“You are gonna make some bogeys out there,” Mayfair said. “You have to accept that.”

Fair enough. Actually, compared to many players, Mayfair had a downright block party out there on the greens hardened by the sun and wind and breezes that turned every airborne golf ball into a dimpled adventure.

For instance, Phil Mickelson shot 76, Justin Leonard a 78, Jet Ozaki an 83, Bob Gilder an 80, Ronnie Black an 80 and qualifier Danny Carroll a 93--a round that included two sevens and eight sixes.

Go ahead and figure it out. There was a lot of pain, suffering and high scores splattered around the place. Stewart and Armour made their move in the morning, before the wind really got going.

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Stewart had four birdies on the back and posted a four-under 67. His 36-hole score of 137 is the same as that of Armour, who had three birdies on the front and finished with a 68.

Rick Fehr and Scott Hoch are only two shots behind Mayfair at 138. Fehr punctuated his 67 with a hole in one on the 172-yard No. 3 with a five-iron. Hoch held on after making the turn in two over and finished with a 71.

Bob Estes, Brett Quigley, Jerry Kelly and Jim Carter are three shots back at 139. Tiger Woods is at 141 after a 73.

Any way you looked at it, Valencia played a lot harder Friday. For one thing, there were the harder greens and the gusting wind. Then there was the fact that they played the ball down instead of lift, clean and place.

The cut was at four-over 146, the highest since the Bell Canadian Open last September.

Mayfair’s problem was that he just couldn’t close it out. He pull-hooked his drive on No. 6, his 15th hole, and missed a 15-footer for par. He made a three-putt bogey on the next hole and then missed the green on his last hole and rolled an eight-footer past the hole for bogey.

Given his new optimistic bent, Mayfair wasn’t going to beat himself up.

“I’ve given the field a chance to catch me,” he said. “I’d rather be three or four shots ahead. But I’m one shot ahead. The finish was disappointing, but I’ve still got the lead.”

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It’s just not much of one. Some people are closing in on him.

At 38, Armour picked a good time to start rescuing his career. It sure didn’t look all that great last year when he lost his card after finishing 131st on the money list.

Armour went to qualifying school for the first time since 1987 and was in good shape until the last day. That’s when he shot 77, enough to miss getting his PGA Tour card by two shots.

So after making $1.4 million on the PGA Tour, winning once and now this, Armour felt . . . well, what?

“Fine,” he said. “It wasn’t like I was shattered. You play 108 holes, a lot of things can happen.”

Some of them not very good. But it’s a new year and a new start for Armour, who already has two top-10 finishes, including tying for runner-up at Phoenix and a tie for sixth at Torrey Pines.

Not only has he won $244,350 in three official, completed tournaments, he is a combined 45 under par through his last 15 rounds.

Stewart said he isn’t all that surprised by Armour’s turnaround.

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“He’s got a new driver and he’s killing it,” Stewart said. “It’s going miles.”

Meanwhile, Stewart’s iron shots aren’t exactly going miles, they’re going just the right distance. Some are so close to the flagstick that Stewart probably could scare the ball into the hole if it looked at his plus-fours.

Stewart was unnerved only once, when a eucalyptus tree blew over near him as he stood in the fourth fairway.

“Fortunately, no one was under it,” Stewart said. “It was kind of a scary deal.”

As for additional scary deals, there is the specter of Woods that Mayfair can see from his position in the lead.

“There’s always that one man you always look over your shoulder at,” he said. “We all know who that is.”

In any event, the game plan does not change for Mayfair. He’s not concerned about having to lead wire to wire to win. He’s not worried about the wind. He’s not even worried about being winless for nearly three years.

“I’ve just got to play the best Billy Mayfair can play and not worry about anything else,” he said.

And then see if that’s good enough.


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